By Sam Reilly
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with a rising star and alumna of the UCR Palm Desert program, Jalysa Conway. While 2020 led to a lot of interesting changes, Jalysa was able to capitalize on her creative momentum. Jalysa has had a busy winter with the season premiere of FOX’s 9-1-1: Lone Star, where she serves as writer and producer. We talked about her career as a captain in the air force and how that has informed her writing during her time on Grey’s Anatomy, as well as the current state of the industry, and how she sees production moving forward.
TCR: So Jalysa, I heard that you entered the MFA program as a fiction writer. What inspired you to make the jump to screenwriting?
JC: Before getting my MFA, I was a captain in the United States Air Force. I studied computer science in undergrad and worked in cyber warfare with the air force, but I always had a passion for writing. In order to get a promotion in the air force, you had to have a master’s degree, so I thought to myself, Let’s do an MFA in creative writing. I applied to UCR, and Tod [Goldberg, director of the MFA program] convinced me that their program was the best. Where else could I learn not only about the craft but the business of writing? So I chose UCR and started in fiction writing because I had a novel that I was working on along with some short stories. Screenwriting was never really on the radar until I had to pick a crossgenre. Once I started screenwriting, I loved it. I started under [professor] Bill Rabkin and learned structure, and then took [professor] Joshua Malkin and explored screenwriting through three and a half scripts that will never see the light of day!
TCR: After getting your MFA, how did you get the attention of agents?
JC: I worked as an assistant in the writers’ room for a while and was able to make some connections. I was able to get some general meetings through a military/crime spec script because agents and producers were attracted to my specific knowledge from my own military experience.
TCR: Are you able to go from working on the show to working on your own projects? What is your process of balancing the show you are working on with your own original work?
JC: First, I focus on the show, especially if it is a new show that I am on. I have to learn the people, learn the room, kind of give the showrunner and the show my undivided attention. I put 110 percent into learning the room and being a good staff person [until] things calm down and I know what I am doing, which is a lot different from staff years where you’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off, wondering how to do everything. Now, even though each staff is different, the work [I] do is still the same and the work tempo is the same. Once [I] get a hold of the tempo, I am able to come home and work on my own stuff.
TCR: Some of these shows you’ve worked on seem to complement your military background, but how big of a learning curve is there to write the technical material well?
JC: Well, funny enough, not just my military background but also being the daughter of a cop had a lot to do with why I was hired. Some of it is just familiar to me from growing up [because] my mom’s a sergeant of the police department of Washington D.C. The stuff that isn’t as familiar, the paramedic side of the show, I was able to bring a lot of the medical stuff over from Grey’s Anatomy, so it’s funny how it all worked out. For the firefighter subjects, I have to do a lot of the research, and, luckily, we have a wonderful staff and we have a researcher who gives us a lot of information. We have a firefighter and paramedic as consultants on payroll who are available any time we need to talk. It was so nice because I had to go to our paramedic consultant for a situation where I made up a medical emergency, and I had to go to her to find out if it was legitimate. I had to ask her if this could really happen. Most staff will have a researcher or consultants, especially if it is highly technical, and it is a great help if you do have any questions.
TCR: I don’t know what I would do if I had to write a medical situation. I would probably have to go shadow someone at a hospital or something to even attempt to figure it out!
JC: In the script, you actually just get to write “Medical Medical” if the characters go into dialogue, and, luckily, we have two writers, or EP’s, who used to work as doctors, and then we had a director of surgical research along with a regular researcher for medical, and then we had interns and residents come and consult too.
TCR: That is incredible! How nice is that?
JC: Well, you know the cadence and the rhythm of it because we’ve all watched enough of those shows and know what it is supposed to sound like, so you just write that in and then you get to focus on the story!
TCR: What did you look for in a new show when you decided to make the jump from Grey’s Anatomy?
JC: Moving from Grey’s, I just wanted to dive into genre. I didn’t really have a specific show in mind, but I wanted to stick to the sensibilities for what I write. After Grey’s, I did the Rideback TV Incubator and worked on a show with Rideback. When that program was done, I told my agents a list of shows I would be interested in. I was able to get on [the STARZ series] Power through a connection from a friend, and after Power and getting to the co-producer level, I was able to be picky. 9-1-1 was one of those shows I loved and wanted to be on . . . and they were staffing Lone Star, so it ended up working out.
TCR: What kind of genres are you exploring?
JC: I am working on a supernatural/thriller piece right now. I’ve been watching shows like [the Syfy series The] Expanse.
TCR: How do you create a roadmap for your own career?
JC: I only roadmap stuff I can control. You never know what TV shows will be available or where the opportunities are going to come from. When I roadmap, I like to start every year with a plan of projects I want to accomplish and where I want my career to be at the end of the year. For this year, I want to take an original idea and sample out to development to see what happens. I have a lot of IP takes that other companies and studios own at this point and am getting weary, so this year I want to take out an original and make it, whether it is a short or web series or I don’t know what it will be. Those are my big two bucket items for the year. I want to move towards that. You get to a J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, an Ava DuVernay spot by taking smaller, actionable steps, and they add up to people believing in your creativity. So I just try to focus on the steps, instead of the whole picture, and what can I do and what I can do now.
TCR: Has being a co-producer changed your perspective [on] or approach [to] writing or collaborating at all?
JC: Since I have reached the mid-levels of production, I have a greater understanding of how things work. That has afforded me the confidence in my own development. I feel like I am at the point where if I learn how to manage a budget, I can run a room at this point. The biggest perspective I’ve gained is confidence.
TCR: How do you think the TV writing environment has changed due to the quarantine?
JC: The Zoom writers’ room is here to stay for a while. Luckily, it doesn’t really affect the creativity of the writers’ room too much, but the real problem is going to be navigating production. Studios are having to figure out ways to continue to produce content amidst COVID-19, and that’s a challenge.
TCR: What is your proudest moment as a writer?
JC: Producing my first episode on Grey’s Anatomy. The episode was initially a freelance script I wrote based on Owen’s military experience and his sister’s disappearance in Iraq. I pitched the idea and amazingly 85 percent of the pitch ended up in the episode, even the BLACKHAWK HELICOPTER! As soon as I got on set, I knew this is what I wanted to do forever. So I showed up and they had the blackhawk . . . on set! The actors had to go through training, and all I could think is that I wrote “BLACKHAWK HELICOPTER” in a script, and they got it. It dawned on me that whatever is in a script, you can bring to life.
TCR: That is one hell of a quote: “Whatever is in a script, you can bring to life.”
I couldn’t think of a better way to conclude our interview. That quote is so empowering to every single writer out there. It not only validates your imagination but it also gives credence to the magic that you can conjure with words. My sit-down with Jalysa could not have been more uplifting, and I am so excited to see her career continue to soar.
Sam Reilly is a screenwriter residing in Franklin, TN. Sam graduated from Middle Tennessee State University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a Concentration in Writing and a minor in Film Study.
Since graduating, he has worked with numerous production companies in the Nashville area serving as head screenwriter on several short films and web-series.
He sites Tarantino, Scorsese, and Taika Waititi as being the main influences on his writing style though he is a fan of all genres.
Sam holds animation dear to his heart as his favorite memories are centered around Disney movie nights and numerous trips to Disney World with his wife and two daughters.